Several years ago, I completed a study and wrote a book about church membership classes. Since that time, I’ve continued to watch and listen as more and more churches develop a membership class. Here are several of the findings of that ongoing research:
- Some folks will disagree with having a membership class. Arguments vary from “There aren’t membership classes in the Bible” to “That’ll lower our number of new members,” but it’s likely somebody will question the necessity of this class.
- Well-designed membership classes are worth the effort. I’ve talked with leaders who regretted some aspect of their class (poor leadership, bad scheduling, too long or too short, etc.), but I’ve not heard a leader say, “We simply should have never had a class.” Many leaders have said, “We should have done it sooner.”
- Some other activity may need to be shelved to make room for this class. Because this class is important, it deserves priority of staffing and scheduling. Even if the church schedule is clear, involved staff may need to say “no” to something else to participate.
- Personally recruiting for the class is not a bad idea. Some attendees will come because they are ready to make a commitment to the church. Other attendees who are, in Josh Harris’ terms “dating the church,” may not take that step. Some of the same folks, though, will attend if they receive a personal invite from a church leader.
- The pastor/primary preacher needs to be involved. Class attendees have told us repeatedly, “We appreciated the time with our pastor.” In many cases, a membership class provides attenders the most intimate time they will have with their pastor. After that time, they will hear him differently in the pulpit.
- Relationships developed are significant. Think about it – several attendees who are considering the same membership decision (or who have made the decision already) come together during a similar part of their spiritual journey. Even a few hours together can help them develop lasting bonds.
- The class must include a clear presentation of the gospel. Don’t assume all potential “new members” are believers. Not only does a presentation make sure that all attendees have a chance to respond to the gospel, but it also helps them know how to present the good news.
- Assuming rather than teaching doctrine in the class is risky. We’ve seen classes that focus well on the church’s story and vision. They encourage involvement, stress giving, and talk about accountability, but give little attention to the church’s doctrine. That omission may well lead to problems later.
- Attendees should leave the class understanding both privileges and responsibilities of church membership. They should want to be a part of God’s local Body while also understanding that membership requires something. A lack of balance here can result in a distorted understanding of the church.
- Follow up is imperative. If the membership class exposes folks to ministry opportunities but no one helps them get connected, the class loses some of its punch. Likewise, someone must follow up after the class to enlist members for small groups, prayer teams, etc. (in fact, it’s best to do as much as possible during the class itself).
What other findings about membership classes have you discovered?
Posted on June 16, 2020
Dr. Chuck Lawless is a leading expert in spiritual consultation, discipleship and mentoring. As a former pastor, he understands the challenges ministry presents and works with Church Answers to provide advice and counsel for church leaders.
More from Chuck
Spouse and I began visited a large church (1500 attendees) that just hired a new staff member and they were starting a new member’s class to inform new and current members about the church. We enjoyed that class very much and it was the only church that had a new members class that I been a member of. Have suggested one numerous times to other leaders, however no takers.
The one and only was great and well worth the time.
Thank you for this article.
Also, fideism should be avoided in these classes.
We have two levels of membership at our church, General Member and Voting Member. I use “I Am A Church Member” by Dr Rainer for the General Membership class. It is one of the best membership books I’ve ever read. #2 on the findings is essential, must be put together well and in a professional yet personal manner. #5 is essential in the classes that I let “staff pastors” lead the whole way I found less long term connection with the members. #8 is HUGE! I have found this a problem. Had some that when through the membership class and became members and got active in ministry. Yet, when they discovered various doctrines we adhere to they left the church and did so in a huff. If they would have heard our foundational doctrines AND our Biblical stance on various “cultural acceptable” issues they would have never become members in the first place and the “huff” wouldn’t have been as dramatic. Without #10 it’s getting the ball to the one yard line and not scoring a touchdown.
Thanks, Jeff, for this helpful information.
I’ve been leading a church membership class for years … in fact, I’m in the middle of one right now: we had to stop after 3 lessons because of the COVID-19 quarantine. I told the couple I’m meeting with that they will forever have the record for the longest membership class I’ve ever been part of (we started Feb. 2)! Here’s how I’ve laid out our classes:
• LESSON #1 – Introductions, background discussion, candidates give personal salvation testimony (they write out their testimony too over the course of the class for two reasons: so they can read it to the church family on the day we vote on their membership … reading eliminates most of the stage fright, and to show the other deacons who can’t attend the first class)
• LESSONS #2-5 – We cover salvation, bibliology, church covenant, and financial matters
• I have them read at their own pace a pamphlet on Baptist Distinctives, Thom Rainer’s book “I Am a Church Member”, our church statement of faith, and our church constitution
• I hold the class on Sunday AM during the Sunday School hour in order to habituate them to coming to Sunday School
• I give them a fill-in-the-blank spiral-bound notebook at the first class … it contains not only the notes for the class, but a copy of our statement of faith, the church constitution, potential ministries for church members, and contact information for everyone in leadership
• I have a deacon join us for at least the first class in order to get to know the candidate/s, answer any questions about the church, and to hear their salvation testimony (sometimes the deacon attends more than one class)
It sounds like a lot but my classes are highly interactive, discussion oriented, and deliberately personal … no one has told me yet that it reminds them of a college survey class! I want the candidates to feel like they had every opportunity to “look under the hood” before committing to our church.
Without a doubt, one of the highlights of my ministry is the time spent leading a church membership class!
Great to hear, Dwayne!
It just occurred to me. All members should take the membership class say every 4 or 5 years to renew their commitments to their church and stay abreast of any changes in the churches constitution, vision and mission statements. Especially among attenders who may attend or donate sporadically.
I’ve known some pastors who annually teach through the membership material from the pulpit just for the reasons you’ve noted.
Really good content Chuck. Over my years of ministry I have seen a lot of apathy toward membership classes. And if there was a class it focuses more on Denominational and Local church history and practices. So, I’ve written my own guide that is designed to help guide people along their Christian journey. In four steps, it helps them get to know Jesus, know what He teaches, grow in their commitment, and finally to go and tell others about Jesus. I can hardly wait to get it implemented in the church I serve.
Thanks, Greg. Many pastors I know have written their own curriculum.
I most certainly endorse the idea of a church membership class, whether the class is prior to or subsequent to membership. My challenge has been commitment on the part of those whom I asked to lead the class, not on the willingness to attend. I’m still plowing that field…
Perhaps you should ask for volunteers from the congregation. You may find willing servants in people you never considered to ask. Likely some were meant to blossom with this added responsibility and do it with enthusiasm.
Just prayed for your efforts, Kevin.
Thank you for the list. It is an excellent guide for structuring and improving membership classes. Very practical items.
Thanks, Chuck. Blessings!
Membership classes are a great way to introduce new members to a discipleship group and to connect them with a mentor. They can serve as an entry point into a church’s discipleship and leadership training and development process. They can help prospective members become assimilated into the fellowship of the church and integrated in its life and worship. The argument that membership classes aren’t in the Bible is specious. Paul met with groups of inquirers, evangelized them, and formed them as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Bible may not describe these meetings as “membership classes” but they served the purposes that membership classes serve. The post-apostolic Church catechized inquirers before baptizing them and continued their formation after their baptism. The post-apostolic Church did not describe the sessions that the catechist held with the inquirers as “membership classes” but they also served the purposes that membership classes serve. If we follow this argument against membership classes to its logical conclusion, we should not be using electric lights, personal Bibles, hymnals, pews, ganged seating, multimedia projectors, wall screens, flat screen TV monitors, guitars, drum sets, electric keyboards, sound systems, baptismal tanks, pulpits, air-conditioning, central heating, individual communion cups, and church buildings. None of them is mentioned in the Bible. As for lowering the number of new members, I must ask if a newcomer cannot commit to a six week membership class, is he or she going to really commit to active membership in the church? If we have low expectations of new members, we shouldn’t be surprised if they fulfill those expectations.
Thanks, Robin, for your insights.
Good article. This book by Chuck Lawless (Membership Matters: Insights from Effective Churches on New Member Classes and Assimilation) has helped shaped our Church Culture and increase Church Retention over the years.
Thanks for the plug for my book, Niyi! It’s an older study, but I think it still has some helpful material.
I attended a not so local church for almost a year. In order to join the church they demanded I attend a “membership class” taught by a woman. I was really interested in joining that church but the demand of a class kept me away. I am well founded in scripture and have indeed been teaching children and working leading children’s church for 45+ years. I kept quiet during my attendance, attending Sunday School one time where a Lifeway study was conducted giving 70 year old men lessons on establishing a budget. Waste of time. Soon after the Senior Pastor left the church. He was only concerned with numbers. What a pity. The church is still struggling trying to keep it’s 500+ members attending on Sunday.
I’m sorry for your experience, Dennis.
I’d sure love to see video of some good membership classes. If you’ve never experienced one, people can tell you “it’s worth the effort” all day but it won’t change the fact that they might as well be speaking Greek. Show us some
I suspect, Tony, that more churches will do membership classes via video as a result of COVID.